Starr on Syria

Rebels from the Free Syrian Army take a break from combat

Rebels from the Free Syrian Army take a break from combat

Journalist Stephen Starr lived and worked in Damascus between 2007 and 2012. Currently the editor of Near East Quarterly, he was present in Syria at the beginning of the uprising against Assad. His book about his experiences, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, was published over the summer and was recently reviewed in The Majalla. His writing has appeared in the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the Times, and other newspapers worldwide. The Majalla spoke with him about his work, his time in Syria and what he thinks the future holds for the troubled state and its people.

The Majalla: You were one of the few Western reporters on the ground in Syria for a while. How long were you able to stay in Syria after the uprisings began before you had to leave?

I left of my own accord last February. Security officers regularly came to my home to ask ridiculous questions (I think the point was to let me know they could find me at a few minutes’ notice). But I was never threatened or asked to leave. I kept a very low profile until I visited Saqba in eastern Damascus and saw the horrors of the regime’s actions. I left a couple of weeks later.

How do you rate the media’s coverage of the Syrian civil war to date?

I’m not a media analyst so I can’t speak unequivocally about the coverage. From what I’ve seen since leaving, the English-language media has been largely one-sided. Yes, the regime is carrying out atrocities every day. Yes, more and more Syrians are opposing the government. But there is still a bloc of individuals who support the regime, for whatever misguided reasons. We hear very little about these people and we need to know that there are millions still supporting before any foreign military intervention may take place.

Why is it so difficult to get to the truth about what is happening in Syria?

Because the regime won’t allow independent journalists to travel freely around the country when it does issue visas. And even if there are recognized, professional journalists on the ground, understanding what is happening is still difficult. For example, a priest was found dead Thursday in a town outside Damascus and the Christian community in this town blame the opposition and the FSA for the killing. This community is now radicalized in support of the regime. But no one knows who killed the priest. From what I’ve heard, he was killed in a way consistent with the way I’ve seen others killed by shahiba, so I would not be surprised if government militias were responsible as a way of bringing Christians closer to the regime. But no one knows.

You conclude in your book that the Syrian government is doomed—how has it been able to last this long in the face of a mass uprising?  How much longer do you think it can last?

Because it has cleverly played the sectarian card; it has driven fear into the heart of the country’s business class; the regime is the army, and so there was never a possibility of a split in that regard. Because it has a remarkably powerful and successful propaganda campaign in the areas it still controls.

No one knows how much longer it can survive in its current form. There may be an internal coup, foreign military intervention, the rebels may make a series of strategic gains that lead them to Damascus and the regime may run out of money. It will be unable to pay employees in the massive state sector at some point in the future which will lead to a humanitarian crisis across the country—maybe this will bring it down. The regime is essentially a militia with funding from outside forces and a large foreign currency reserve that are keeping it—through its control of the government—afloat.

Do you see any signs that the rebels are becoming more organized?

They will, if only by default, continue to make more territorial gains. They may not be more organized, but they are still becoming more successful. Jihadists are helping them. They have worked out how to use anti-aircraft guns and how best to win control of military bases in the north. Regime forces are not as motivated as they are.

It is always difficult to predict the future with any accuracy, and doubly so during a war, but what do you foresee happening next in Syria?

As you say, it is extremely difficult to predict. The current stalemate will likely continue. Direct foreign intervention—if it takes place—would change things dramatically. Militarily, the Assad regime is weakening by the day, but at the same time, there are still many Syrians who support it. This middle ground or ‘silent majority’—the Syrians who don’t buy into the regime or the opposition—are being forced by the violence to come down on one side or the other. The time and space for talking is being crushed as deaths increased. If there are 30,000 people dead and thousands more detained and injured how can you expect their families and friends to behave rationally?

What is the most likely scenario for the ‘endgame’?  What will it take to end the fighting?

No one knows. The regime won’t quit until it runs out of weapons and/or territory. It will probably look to negotiate when that happens, but with the rebels at the gates of Damascus, will they want to negotiate with a regime that has done all it can to blast them to hell? I doubt it. Thereafter, perhaps a transitional authority with some government figures (not regime people) along with figures like Haitham Malleh, Michel Kilo, religious leaders who have not sided with the regime or opposition until now, can lead the country through a transitional period. I am positing. I can’t comment on this with certainty other than to say that it will be bloody and contested.

There have been many rumors about assistance from Hezbollah and Iran (especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard) to the Syrian government.  Do you think there is anything to them?

There’s a lot to them. We don’t know exactly to what extent, but the regime would have folded long ago if it was acting entirely on its own. Lots of civilians I’ve spoken to after regime military incursions into civilian areas have said there were guys with Lebanese accents among the government troops. I saw a lot of bearded guys (Syrian government soldiers are clean-shaven) manning checkpoints in and around Damascus early on in the uprising. I remember driving past the Iranian embassy in Damascus last year and there was four SUVs with Lebanese license plates parked outside. There were groups of tall men dressed all in black using walkie talkies surrounding the SUVs. There were undoubtedly Hizbollah. These guys were guarding someone important and had just come from Lebanon. They were parked outside the Iranian embassy. Were they in Damascus on tourism or to smuggle cigarettes? I doubt it.

You discuss the role of the different social and economic classes in the Syrian uprising. Have things have changed since your book was published this summer? Have the urban population of Syria joined in with the uprising in significant numbers?

Things have changed and things have not changed at all. The minorities are more radicalized and afraid. The urban classes—mostly Sunni—are sick to death of not having electricity, of having to stay at home on the weekend, of the increasing cost of bread and tomatoes, of having to queue for hours to fill their cars with petrol. They don’t like the revolt but they know the Assads are a brutal mafia. In the beginning they wanted the revolt to win—but they wanted no part in bringing down the regime. Now, they’re sick of the life they’re living and most probably would prefer for everything to go back to the way it was in February 2011. Of course, that’s not possible anymore. Too many people have died. This is a revolution of the poor and the rural, and the minorities and wealthy urbanites have not and will not take part in it.

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